Zinaida Serebriakova’s Paris

Zinaida Serebriakova’s second sojourn in Paris began in 1924. Her first was in the early 1900s with her husband. This second trip can hardly be termed a visit, as she never did return to Russia till nearly the end of her days. Her work this time around revolved around glimpses of family life, but she sketched life as she saw it in the great city, all its madness and excitement. Thematically too, there was a difference from her paintings of two decades earlier – then, she had studio works and observations of architecture, only rarely venturing into street life; now, she looked at everything, the markets, bistros, cafes, the subway, the cinema, hairdressers…

M. G. Lukyanov wrote in a letter in 1924: “All this time I haven’t seen anyone other than Zina, who lives across from me; we can see each other from our windows. She is so pitiable, lonely and helpless. She hardly gets any work, and scarcely anyone wants to pay her. Just yesterday she got some small money, but it was just about enough for food. I took her once to the Swedish ballet, and she was very pleased. The ballet was terrible, and we spat, despite the fact that it involves all the fashionable stars of music and art. Yesterday, we had dinner together ​​and then went to the movies, where they showed such horrors that Zina’s probably not slept all night. She thanked me very much for spending time with her, given that her own relatives hardly took any interest in her.”

[The above loosely translated from ‘La vie parisienne‘ by Punto di vista.]

As Lukyanov pointed out, her life in Paris was not easy at all. Serebriakova had expected to be gone from Russia only a short period (indeed, she left her four children and ailing mother behind), but hoped there to earn enough to support her large family. “Here I am alone,” she wrote to her brother, a year after her arrival in Paris. “No one realizes how terribly difficult it is to start without a farthing, and with such obligations as I have (to send home to my children everything that I earn); time is passing, and I feel that I am doing nothing more than running on the spot… I am afraid of what this winter will bring for my family in Leningrad… I am able to send less and less money, as there is a financial crisis here with the falling franc, and there is no one willing to spend money on portrait painting. I often regret that I have come so hopelessly far from my family…” And the tone of her letters home, for all the time she was abroad, never changed; there was always the same sense of hopelessness, regret and pain. “All winter I have had no work, and I have not sold a single picture.” “I can work very little; life is so complicated and hard that I can make no time for my beloved art; and this winter has been particularly harsh, all my energies have been spent in keeping the stove alight and in other such matters.”

It was only at the end of the 1920s that she managed to bring her younger children, Katya and Alexander, to Paris to be with her.

(From Tatyana Savitskaya, “The Art of Zinaida Serebriakova“, translated by Graham Whitaker.)